Book Review: ‘The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults’ by Tim Clydesdale

Review by Drew Moser. Moser is dean of student engagement and an associate professor of higher education and student development at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. He is a co-author of Ready or Not: Leaning into Life in Our Twenties (NavPress) and a co-editor of Campus Life: In Search of Community (IVP Academic).

Narratives of decline surround American evangelicalism and American religion more broadly. Within these narratives, a special sort of skepticism is reserved for twentysomethings. Much has been said about their flight from the pews, the rise of the “nones,” and the lack of institutional commitment among millennials. While we’ve been wringing our hands about the millennial generation, we must acknowledge that Generation Z snuck up on us. They are increasingly filling the ranks of the twentysomething cohort.

As a Gen Xer, I remember a similar fretting for my generation of youth. We were the “latchkey kids”: A lack of supervision inevitably turned us into the sort of rebellious teens depicted in films like The Breakfast Club.

Given the relative novelty of emerging adulthood as a developmental stage, it’s easy to come down hard on twentysomethings. This new phase in the American experience, marked by delays in attaining traditional markers of adulthood (marriage, home ownership, full-time employment, and so on), provides fodder for sweeping critiques of twentysomethings, including their faith.

In The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, sociologist Tim Clydesdale and religion scholar Kathleen Garces-Foley acknowledge the prevailing stereotypes: “Today’s twentysomethings,” they write, “have been labeled the ‘lost generation’—for their presumed inability to identify and lead fulfilling lives, ‘kidults’—for their alleged refusal to ‘grow up’ and accept adult responsibilities—and the ‘least religious generation’—for their purported disinterest in religion and spirituality.”

Are twentysomethings really such a “lost generation?” Clydesdale and Graces-Foley give us reasons to be much more hopeful.

Original Research

There are plenty of recent books covering the lives, experiences, and perceptions of twentysomethings, addressed to their parents, to curious outsiders, or to members of that age cohort itself. Good examples include The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay, and How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

On the subject of young adults’ faith lives specifically, research from The Barna Group, led by David Kinnaman, has yielded important volumes like unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it MattersYou Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith, and Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.

The Twentysomething Soul widens the scope of this discussion with the authors’ original research, which draws from hundreds of interviews and thousands of surveys of twentysomethings across the nation. Their analysis focuses on the 91 percent of American twentysomethings who identify as either Christian (Catholic, evangelical, or mainline Protestant) or “religiously unaffiliated.” (Twentysomethings of other faith traditions are not considered in this book.) Clydesdale and Garces-Foley distill their work into seven major claims:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, the beliefs and practices of American twentysomethings reveal far more continuity than decline.
  • One in three twentysomethings attend worship regularly, but they cluster within young-adult friendly congregations.
  • The religiously unaffiliated are a diverse group, consisting of atheists, agnostics, and believers.
  • Today’s American twentysomethings adopt one of four approaches to faith: They prioritize it, they reject it, they sideline it, or they practice an “eclectic spirituality.”
  • American twentysomething spirituality groups into two camps: traditionally religious and nontraditional.
  • Those American twentysomethings who prioritize religious and spiritual life are more likely to engage in a certain set of practices: marriage, parenthood, college graduation, employment, voting, community engagement, and social involvement.
  • American twentysomethings view institutions differently than their elders: As the authors explain, “Today’s twentysomethings experience the world less as sets of institutions prescribing standard life scripts and more as nodes on a network from which they can freely choose cultural symbols, strategies, and interpretations.”

The book devotes a chapter to each Christian subgroup and an additional chapter to the religiously unaffiliated. Within each Christian subgroup, the authors further disperse twentysomethings into three categories: active, nominal, and estranged. Such a framework provides a more nuanced understanding of each subgroup, countering the notion that evangelicals are more active than their Catholic or mainline Protestant peers.

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Source: Christianity Today